Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Tethered

 

“Outside intelligences, exploring the Solar System with true impartiality, would be quite likely to enter the Sun in their records thus: Star X, spectral class G0, 4 planets plus debris.”

— Isaac Asimov

“The vices of peace are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution. It must be so.”

— Prince Feisal, Lawrence of Arabia

In 1978, NASA astrophysicist Donald J. Kessler predicted that the quantity of artificial satellites orbiting Earth would reach a critical limit, after which collisions became inevitable. One satellite would strike another at the dangerous speeds of Earth orbit—seven, eight kilometers per second—and the two would break into hundreds of pieces. These pieces would in turn collide with other satellites, generating a chain reaction of impact and debris. By some point, Kessler proposed, this orbiting shell of garbage would render spaceflight difficult, if not impossible.

• • • •

Charlie and Kalima receive the transmission at 2100 hours. Their junkship is hanging in the old graveyard orbits, floating among the decommissioned satellites from pre-Kessler—the ones routinely deposited there in high orbit twenty years back, before the UN Security Council discovered it was an inefficient strategy, a strategy which only worked in the short run because it was only cheap in the short run.

It’s the long run now.

Charlie drops their junkship toward the sea of debris which envelopes medium orbit beneath. The sun hasn’t yet covered this side of Earth, but it’s at just the right angle so the orbiting trash lights in yellow twinkles above the shaded planet below. The sea of garbage glitters like a limitless city blinking through the darkest time of night.

“It’s a corporate run,” Charlie says, hands on his chair’s dashboard. He’s short, stocky, with big eyes draped in shade.

Kalima shrugs. Her hair floats around her like rings around a planet, only black and built of flowing tendrils. As the junkship dives, the tendrils shoot behind her like the backend of a lightless comet’s tail.

“So?”

“I don’t like it.”

“The hell you don’t, big guy.”

Charlie shakes his head.

He activates the junkship’s external magnetic fields, and a buzzing trembles from the outside in. He deploys blocks of foam around the shuttle’s flight path; they bubble outward with a distant, viscous sizzle. Ahead, debris hits the foam, passes through at a manageable velocity, and then runs against the junkship’s B-fields. The debris breaks away as the fields thrust forward, Moses’ magnetic staff parting a sea of polluted vacuum. Anything antimagnetic ricochets away as its magnetic companions, which constitute the majority of the trash, bounce against it.

Several pieces of debris have enough momentum to break the safeguards, but by the time those shards reach the hull of the junkship they’ve been slowed to the point where they won’t do more than a scratch. The smallest bits reach higher speeds—high enough they vaporize on impact. They pelt the iron-plated sides of the junkship like frantic deep-sea creatures rapping against a submarine.

As Charlie navigates the junkship between the foam and the thicker clouds of churning trash, Kalima ties her hair into a bun. She’s strong enough to move her arms against the junkship’s Earthward inertia, to reach forward, up, and around to her nape. She is a tall, slender woman bathed in mahogany skin.

Charlie’s eyes are fixed ahead, but he steals a glance her way. His muscles are tight at the armchair controls.

“You’re supposed to cut your hair, Kal. Safety regulation.”

“I know.” She smiles. “No one’s watching, right? They don’t give a shit. We’re garbage men, Charlie. Freaking garbage men.”

He shakes his head again. “I guess.”

“We’re chums.”

“Sure, Kal. Sure.”

She finishes doing up her hair and, still fighting the junkship’s forward movement, punches him roughly in the shoulder. She grins.

“Ask NASA—well, not NASA. Not anymore.” She bites her bottom lip. “Ask the Security Council. Ask Kradys. They’ll tell you, between the lines. They’ll tell you what we are to them.”

“What, Kal?”

Charlie guns the junkship through the maze of debris. The garbage is loose here—safer in passage. He can see the clarity of low orbit a kilometer down; it’s been getting smaller down there, despite the Kessler Initiatives—despite the work Charlie and Kalima and all the other garbage men do for Kradys and the Security Council. The motives are less humanitarian than they are PR stunts. No doubt, diplomacy in space means a lot of things—and where there is diplomacy, there is war.

“What are we to them?” Charlie plays along.

“Charlie, we’re pawns.” Kalima laughs coldly.

The last kilometer is spent in silence. They listen to the buzzing electromagnetic fields, to the bits of undeflected debris raining against the hull, and to life support’s asthmatic rasp as it maintains the pressure and recycles the oh-two. Kalima’s perfume, palpable and dark as empty vacuum, fills her side of the cockpit. Charlie’s sweat reeks through the filtered air.

Finally they are out the other side, down the foam-bordered, B-field tunnel the junkship has wedged through the debris. Behind, the foam separates into tiny marbles of liquid. The marbles burst into an almost immaterial vapor.

Charlie settles the junkship at a stable orbit above the satellite they’ve been sent to decommission manually. He switches off the B-fields so they won’t interfere with EVA.

“We’re here.”

She shrugs. “No kidding.”

Manual decommission is a rare job—usually unnecessary at a time when every satellite is sent into orbit with ready-made Lorentz tethers to unspool once the machine is no longer of use, dragging the “Zombie satellite” into atmospheric burn. Tethers are controlled via radio, but apparently this Zombie is so defunct it won’t respond to wireless imperatives from the ground.

That almost never happens.

The junkship hovers over the satellite below—like two creatures in their first encounter, discovering each other for the first time, standing apart. The Zombie’s solar panels stretch obliquely from its sides, catching the rays of sun that trickle around Earth’s thick horizon. Antennae, hatchways, and silver rungs are splotched across the grayish hull, from which tiny lights blink green and red like distant stars.

“I don’t know, Kal,” Charlie says at last.

“You don’t know your ass. We need the money. I’m not waiting another two years out here.” She looks at him. “You know we need the money.”

She reaches beneath her seat. Her hand emerges with a pouch of Dr. Pepper. She snaps open the tip, pops out three bubbles of wriggling brown, opens her mouth, and sticks out her tongue. She swallows them one by one.

“Kal,” Charlie protests, steadying the junkship, matching pace with the orbit of the satellite below.

“I’ll be fine, big guy.” She unstraps herself and floats toward the exit.

“Just—”

“Hm?” Kalima stops.

“Stay alive for the wedding.”

“Will do.” She pushes forward again, grins, turns. “I do.”

“Shut up,” Charlie retorts as she exits for the departure bay. He moves the junkship closer to the satellite, preparing the docking arms. His mouth opens, closes, and then—“Yeah, me too.”

Near the airlock, Kalima can hear his whisper echo into the com. She giggles to her reflection in the EMU.

• • • •

They first met August 9, 2065 on Flight 604, when the microscopic speck of debris shot Rami Pasha through the head. They fell in love at the memorial service banquet.

Flight 604 was a standard junkship task in the relative safety of the graveyard orbits. The graveyard program had been so ephemeral that crashes were infrequent there.

This satellite was a twenty-year-old European deep space telescope, a Zombie with heat-reflecting gold foil that shone brightly under the sun’s gaze. The European Space Agency wanted some archived data files, in addition to their run-down telescope’s expensive gold foil, before the Kessler Initiatives’ garbage men—Kalima, her brother Rami, and Charlie—sent the Zombie into atmospheric burn.

While Charlie docked their junkship against the decommissioned satellite, Kalima and Rami donned their EMUs, hooked up to the junkship’s mechanical arms, and went out for EVA. Kalima booted the Zombie’s systems and extracted the data, channeling it through her safety tether back to the junkship’s archives.

Rami clambered from his mechanical arm and went rung by rung to the protruding tube which dominated the body of the European telescope. He began to snap away the gold foil, roll it up, and strap it bit by bit to his mechanical arm.

Once done, he ambled around the Zombie’s bulk with a Lorentz tether spool chained to his utility belt. He undid his own safety tether—it was too short for the climb around this massive fossil of a satellite—and said he’d be in and out, no trouble.

He went beneath the Zombie, snapped in the Lorentz tether spool, and switched it on. All the satellite would need was a push Earthward, someone to wirelessly unspool the tether, and, eventually, it would disintegrate in the atmosphere—one more piece of trash eliminated from the busy mess which had hindered orbital activity, lunar missions, and outgoing probes for three-and-a-half decades.

Rami made his way back around the belly of the satellite, emerging at the bend, when a sharp click erupted from his com.

A red needle trailed from the front of his visor like a long, bloody arrow. It angled down and to his right, exiting from somewhere near his jaw. As the blood trickled away, the droplets froze in vacuum.

A microscopic crumb of trash, likely a wanderer from the distant medium orbit debris below, had pierced through Rami Pasha’s skull.

Two meters away, Kalima saw it first. She floated still, clutching loosely to a rung.

Charlie called down from the junkship, questioning the delay, and stopped.

“Get back in the shuttle, Miss Pasha,” he warned. “Get back in the shuttle.” There could be other, unaccounted for, debris.

Silently, Kalima hooked into her mechanical arm. She maneuvered it to the junkship, watching Rami’s suit float toward the medium orbit debris.

Charlie detached the junkship from the Zombie and nudged the ancient telescope down. His jaw clenched. The tendons in his forearms pulled like steel cables as he managed the junkship’s passage with rigid, jerking movements.

Once a safe distance away, he set the shuttle in cruise and pushed down the ship tunnels swathed in tangled wires and mazelike pipes.

He met Kalima in the airlock, where she floated, balled up, tearless, by the window. Charlie looked away. He should have deployed safety foam before EVA, should have played it safer than he’d thought necessary.

She’d only managed to undo half her EMU. She stared as her brother’s suited body fell into medium orbit, where the debris began to tear him apart. He thrashed like a body drowned in the Amazon River, ripped to shreds as if by a swarm of crazy-eyed piranhas straight out of a B-grade horror movie.

By the time the body got out the other end in the debris-clouded distance, there wasn’t much of a body to speak of—only shreds of flesh and bits of EMU suit material, barely distinguishable amongst the haze. Just another indefinite swirl of debris obstructing Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, the Zombie was also pelted by the debris of medium orbit. It made it to the other side intact though tattered.

Charlie flicked a switch, and the tether spun from its belly toward the atmosphere, picking up ions. Lorentz forces tugged against the Zombie’s orbital motion, decreasing its velocity until, hours later, the decommissioned ESA telescope would bounce across Earth’s atmosphere, eventually skidding into a slow, fiery burn which in the following months would level the machine to ash.

• • • •

On January 16, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia launched from Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-107. Eighty-two seconds and twenty kilometers into the launch, a piece of thermal insulation foam the size of a suitcase fell off the shuttle and pierced its left wing at Mach 2.46.

Columbia completed 225 orbits and headed home February 1. Upon atmospheric reentry, the broken wing overheated and separated from the shuttle, which then disintegrated above Texas, leaving no survivors.

A puncture not more than twenty-five centimeters had destroyed $1.7 billion dollars worth of technology and seven lives.

• • • •

Kalima is outside the junkship now. Above is the shuttle, and above that is the debris of medium orbit swirling gray and shining in its light-specked shroud. She’s strapped into the mechanical arm, and Charlie’s got the shuttle docked to the Zombie below. Kalima nudges the arm forward. It extends outward around itself, like a fire escape.

Charlie’s voice sputters into her ears. “Be careful, Kal. We’re out of safety foam.”

“Relax, big guy. I got this.” Kalima stretches forward inside her helmet and bites out of the Twix bar beneath her chin. She chews, swallows, then sips the Dr. Pepper from its tube. None of it is regulation.

Soon she’s almost at the Zombie’s electronics-mottled surface.

“Faster, Kal.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Our time frame is an hour.” His voice is tight.

Kalima reaches the surface, snaps on her safety tether, and unbuckles from the mechanical arm.

“Why d’you think?” she asks. “They’re giving us a crapload of cash, aren’t they?”

“What?”

“We never have a time frame, Charlie. Not unless we’re about to get eaten up by a shit cloud.”

Breath hisses across the radio. “The Sartus Debris Cluster is around the bend.”

“Round the bend in an hour and forty,” Kalima says, chewing on her Twix bar. “Our time frame is shorter.”

“So?”

“It’s something secret.” She snickers. “They don’t want anyone to know.”

Charlie’s breath makes the radio crackle again. “Kal, you’re crazy.”

She smiles. “I know.”

• • • •

They fell in love at her brother’s memorial service banquet. It was a strange sort of love, if anything.

They waited in a buffet line in New York City. An international gathering. Dark suits everywhere, and black dresses like the one Kalima wore.

Adorned in green neckties and dark brown suits, Pakistani officials dotted the crowd, offering condolences to Kalima as ambassadors from the country of her birth. Pentagon military men exchanged awkward, sometimes friendly glances with these brown-skinned men and women who had only two decades ago been allies; the Central Asian pipeline through Afghanistan had changed that. The US Secretary of Defense, who had shaken hands with many of these officials twenty years ago, had insisted security allow them into the country just this one time. The Vice President of Kradys, Inc. watched from his seat as his analysts and business managers talked shop.

Charlie and Kalima were behind one another in the buffet when Kalima tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hey, mister,” she said.

“Mr. Monnagan,” Charlie corrected, turning.

“Big guy.” She grinned.

“Charlie is fine, Miss Pasha.” He smiled, wavering.

“Big guy,” she said again. She sipped her can of Dr. Pepper. “Wanna see a trick?”

“A . . . trick?”

“Yeah. A trick.” She grabbed his wrist. “I’ll show you.” She put down her soda and snatched a knife from the table. “Ever seen the movie Aliens?”

“No?” Charlie squinted. “Miss, I don’t think—”

“Don’t think, big guy. That’s right.” She splayed his fingers on the white tablecloth. “Don’t move an inch.”

Without giving Charlie time to react, she stabbed the knife between his fingers, down and over and down. It was flashing metal, fingers too shocked to tremble, and eyes staring from all around.

“That’s dangerous, Miss Pasha,” Charlie warned. “Miss Pasha—”

Charlie bit his tongue and reached with his free hand to seize Kalima’s wrist. She stopped, smiling, looking at him, as he slipped the knife from her fingers and placed it further down the table.

Her hands were cold and dry. His were slippery with perspiration.

The crowd murmured, then hushed. A crooked grin worked its way into Kalima’s lips. “That’s dangerous,” Charlie repeated.

She giggled.

The line shifted forward. The crowd whispered, shuffled, and returned to its somber undertones.

Charlie’s mouth opened, closed, opened. “So.”

She looked at him.

“It’s been a while.”

She narrowed her eyes.

“How’s it been, since . . . you know.”

Kalima cocked her head to the side. She reached around him to grab a plate. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” she said.

She brought the soda can to her mouth, swallowed the Dr. Pepper that dripped to her tongue, and licked her lips.

• • • •

On January 11, 2007, the Chinese executed the first successful anti-satellite missile test since the United States in 1985. The Chinese military sent a kinetic kill vehicle at eight kilometers per second into one of its own weather satellites 865 kilometers above Earth. The result was 2,317 pieces of orbital debris the size of a golf ball or larger—the greatest production of debris for any incident ever recorded up to that time.

• • • •

Half an hour later, Charlie gets a call. It’s Chinese. He doesn’t need to read the frequency—he can tell by the muffled English, as if it’s coming out a grater.

The transmission floods his headset.

Junkship 0577. Junkship 0577. What is your authorization? Junkship 0577. Junkship 0577. What is your authorization?

Charlie eyes Kalima, who is climbing over the satellite’s surface. She’s hooked the archives cable into the system, which is, surprisingly, running smoothly for a Zombie.

“Kal.”

“Huh?”

“There’s a problem.”

“Well, figure it out, right?” Her voice comes out flush—happy even. “I’m busy.” Her EMU hovers over the manual control panels set along the Zombie’s hull. She’s working, but at a leisurely pace.

“I think this is military,” Charlie says.

Toooold ya.” Kalima’s suit twists around. Her visor gleams into the junkship’s cockpit, where Charlie’s hands tremble over the dashboard.

“Shut up.”

“Will do.” She waves and turns back to the satellite’s manual control panel.

The receiver crackles. “Junkship 0577. Junkship 0577. What is your authorization? Junkship 0577. Junkship 0577. What is your authorization? Respond immediately.”

“Oh, hell,” Charlie says.

Respond immediately. Junkship 0577. Junksh—

He hits the receiver.

“This is Junkship 0577.” His voice cracks like a high school freshman verging on adolescence. “We are under international Kessler Initiative authorization. The UN Security Council has set this satellite for decommission.”

Decommission denied. Which country do you serve?

Charlie scratches at his thin fuzz of hair. He’s sweating.

“Sir—” He falters. “We’re international.”

There’s a pause at the other end. Kal types away below, trying to access the Zombie’s archives for the data they’ve been commissioned to save before trashing the satellite.

“That’s weird,” she says. “I can’t get the data we need, even with the passwords Kradys provided us. I mean, it looks like they could’ve just radioed down whatever data they wanted. This Zombie’s running pretty well, you know—”

The Chinese signal gurgles into Charlie’s receiver, and he lets it override Kal’s transmission. The voice dribbles into his ears.

Which corporation do you serve?

He hesitates. “We are not corporate.”

These are international transmissions, Junkship 0577.”

And thus, Charlie knows, is the implied threat—that fraud is liable to international litigation. Or worse.

“We’re international, unincorporated,” he replies. “If you would excuse me one moment, we must continue our business.” Charlie puts the receiver on hold and tunes in to Kalima.

She’s still talking away.

“Hey, Charlie? Hey! This won’t do shit, not like Kradys said it would. I think there’s been a recent program override, via radio—”

“We’re under contract, right?” Charlie interrupts. “Can’t even acknowledge?”

“Um. Yeah.”

“It’s international, secure, no issue. Solid moral ground, solid legal ground. Just incorporated is all, right? Just can’t say it. Right, Kal? Right?”

“We’re in deep shit, aren’t we?”

Charlie nods, even though she can’t see him.

“Beautiful,” Kal says. “I’ve always wanted to be in deep shit, you know? Not like we aren’t always in deep shit, hanging here in the trash heap of this orbital abyss.” She laughs. “It’s the most beautiful thing . . .”

Charlie shakes his head, severs the connection, and opens to the Chinese transmission. It’s still chattering to the junkship’s receiver.

Junkship 0577. Junkship 0577—

“Yes?” Charlie’s voice is small.

That satellite has not been authorized for decommission. On this breach of international code of conduct, we would like to make it clear that our operations have a right to take any action we deem necessary unless your operations comply with our demands. Is this understood?

The junkship roars its life systems’ pressure mods and air filters into Charlie’s ears. He slams the receiver. He doesn’t want to talk.

This satellite is no Zombie.

He knows they have weapons monitoring his junkship’s movements. Fail to follow demands, and China will consider it an act of aggression, destroy Charlie’s vessel, and, if necessary, declare war against the nation or corporation—corporation, of course—which has sponsored their assignment. But if Charlie and Kalima don’t complete their assignment once they’ve gotten this far, Kradys will fire them, lock them in prison. Might kill to eliminate witnesses to whatever is going on here.

“Shoot.” He unlocks Kalima’s frequency. “Kal.”

What?” she screams, half charged with fury, half charged with some dark, excited, nerve-wracking energy. “You cut me off. Something’s up, ain’t it, big guy? Something’s up.”

• • • •

Forty-five minutes after reaching the satellite, Kalima has finally hacked into its control system. It’s military, Charlie tells her. It’s military, and that means it’s political.

“Damn political,” he says. “I hate politics. Hate it to hell.”

“Good for you.” She laughs.

There’s crackling silence on the other end.

“Remember 2007?” Charlie says at length. “Chinese blew a weather satellite in orbit. Remember? That was over thirty-five years ago.”

“And?” Kalima fiddles with the control system. She begins feeding the satellite’s data to the junkship archives.

“They’re going to do that to us. Missiles—lasers probably, a little cleaner that way. They’ll kill us.”

She sips her Dr. Pepper. “No, they won’t. The debris would ruin their own satellite, and the way it looks, they don’t want that, do they? No.”

She pops out two bubbles of soda and uses her tongue to pull them back to her mouth before they collide with the inside of her visor. Like frog and fly.

“No,” she repeats. “They’re going to send an actual ship. One of those barges, the huge Chinese shuttles they only tell you about, with the private Chinese tech they won’t disclose for all the Saudi oil they can get. Which is why we have an hour. That’s how long it takes one of those to go from the dark side of the moon to low Earth orbit. Damn fast, eh?”

Charlie is silent on the other end.

“You haven’t checked the location of the transmission, have you, Charlie?” She grins.

His voice simmers into her ears. “It’s moving.”

“No shit.”

• • • •

At 16:56 UTC February 10, 2009, Iridium 33, a functioning Iridium Communications, Inc. satellite, and Kosmos-2251, a Russian Zombie defunct since 1995, collided at 11.7 kilometers per second 789 kilometers above Siberia. The first major accidental collision between two artificial satellites, it produced 1,740 pieces of debris.

• • • •

Charlie is shaking.

He reaches up. He opens the overhead window shutter.

Beyond, the cloud of medium orbit debris rushes passed, contained there—though weakly—by synthetic B-fields, nanosweapers, trashprobes, and the daily work of the occasional junkship like this one. Far away along the curve of Earth’s atmosphere, a space station glows red as it feeds in energy from the ionosphere and inducts currents into its kinetic-magnetic reservoirs.

Behind medium orbit are stars, almost indistinguishable from the glittering trash. Between the stars and the trash, the Moon bobs in vacuum, pale like the skin of a drowned sailor washed ashore. And between the moon and medium orbit a light screams forward like a shooting star.

“I’m gonna die,” he tells himself. “I’m gonna die . . .”

Kalima is saying something to him, calling in a wandering, dancing voice across the radio. He looks below.

She’s spinning, spinning, spinning through vacuum like a preschooler at recess.

• • • •

The sun is almost up, if that makes sense in outer space. The debris illuminates itself in orange flares until the whole of the starry sky above her glows in a warm, engulfing flame. The sun vomits a reddish-yellow brow over Earth’s blue arm.

“Chaaarrrlllliiiieeee . . .” Kalima calls. “Chaaarrrrllieeee . . .”

She snatches her safety tether and spins herself around it, around and around.

“Hello up there . . . Helllloooooo . . .” She laughs to herself.

She bites her Twix bar; it crunches between her teeth. She watches the debris above her and smiles.

“Weeeeeeee . . .” She spins through vacuum, like a loop of wire set perpendicular to a magnetic field, rotating on its long axis—a motor running like always on the three dimensional effects of magnetic flux.

“Weeeeeee . . .”

There’s a shooting star above. A great, big shooting star, and it’s coming to meet her and Charlie and Rami, somewhere lost in the fiery medium orbit debris. It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s coming.

• • • •

Congressman Dennis Kucinich first introduced to the US House of Representatives the Space Preservation Act, prohibiting the use of space weapons, on October 2, 2001, following international bids for a Space Preservation Treaty. Kucinich brought the bill four times to the House floor until May 18, 2005, but the Space Preservation Act never passed into law.

• • • •

Inside, something snaps. Charlie yells through the radio. It’s forty-five minutes already, and he can’t call NASA. He can’t call the UN. He can’t call Kradys. No communications, it said in the contract. That way no one can track the source.

Something has cracked, burst, kicked.

“Kal!” he screams. “Kal, are you out of your damn mind?”

“Precisely.”

“Really? Really?”

Charlie can hear the labor in his own breath, even over the junkship’s engines and the headphones in his ears. The dashboard beeps, telling him Kalima’s download from the satellite’s systems is complete.

Kalima doesn’t say a word for two minutes. She’s just spinning.

“Say,” she says at last. “Let’s finish this.” Below, she quits her spinning, hitches to the Lorentz tether spool, and climbs to the satellite’s edge.

“Kal.”

No reply.

Kal.”

Nothing. She continues gathering her tools.

“Let’s not do this, okay? I don’t want something like before, Kal. Not safe. Not at all—”

Kalima’s EMU turns, its white surface bathed in the reflected orange glitter of the debris above. Charlie shades his eyes against her visor’s blinding light.

“D’you love me, Charlie?”

“You’re getting romantic. Don’t get romantic. I hate it when—”

“Hey. Relax, big guy.”

Charlie shakes his head. “No, Kal. No. Get back in the junkship. We’re going home.”

“Hell no.”

Charlie pushes himself against his seat. His fingers are shaking as he adjusts his harness, preparing for . . . for what? “I don’t want something like before, Kal. Not like—”

He can see Kalima look up at him one last time. “Shut up, Charlie. Shut the hell up. You weren’t there. I was. My brother, not yours.”

Her bulky figure turns and climbs around onto the underside of the Chinese satellite, passing the protruding metal stalagmites which are no doubt missiles, lasers, cameras, and protection systems. It’s definitely some sort of military satellite, Charlie’s finally realized.

“And we need the money, Charlie. I’m not going to grow old playing chum my whole damn life. It’s indentured servitude, and you know it.”

Her receiver crackles, then cuts off to the junkship’s groaning silence.

The Chinese barge’s transmission bursts into Charlie’s ears.

Junkship 0577. Junkship 0577. This is a final warning. This is a final warning. Cease activities at once. Cease activities at once. We are approaching interception.”

Fifty minutes, the clock says. Fifty minutes.

• • • •

Kalima clips the tether spool onto the satellite’s belly. She launches the tether, and it spills away. It brushes the ionosphere a kilometer and a half below, lighting up at its end. A current starts to run through the tether, which glows. The Lorentz forces begin their work, slowing the satellite, letting Earth’s gravity pull it gradually in.

She smiles and looks all around. One minute passes. She reads the plating beside the tether spool control board. It’s in Mandarin:

PAKISTAN – CHINESE – REFUGEES : Zheng He Station

Her face contorts. Her complexion has always been a constant thing, definable, no matter how indefinable, invisible, or evasive her inner persona is. Now her face conceals nothing, and in doing so remains concealed. It becomes twisted, wrinkled, tight—a mess of knots and folds as complex as the unbounded entropy of the Kessler Syndrome. The eye can never capture its true nature, can never fully grasp what is there, like the image of a fractal painting with no brush stroke in sight—only feature thrust upon feature into a muddle so detailed it remains an amorphous disarray.

She punches the button on her EMU’s chest. Her receiver opens to Charlie.

“Change of plan,” she says.

“What?”

“Change of plan.”

“You’re killing me, Kal. You’re killing me.”

“I know.” She grins briefly. “This is a military protection unit for the Pakistani refugees in western China, in the mountains. Where the Western Allies chased them out.”

“Protection for terrorists, you mean.”

She laughs. “You really don’t know politics, do you?” No reply. “They’re villagers. Not Taliban. Everyone thinks everyone’s the freaking Taliban. Or Al-Qaeda. Or whatever.” She sips her Dr. Pepper; it takes longer to bring it up the tube this time. Almost out. “The Allies really did it for the damn pipeline anyway.”

“Okay . . . ?”

“So change of plan. Like I said. I can’t let ten thousand refugees suffer because of me. I won’t. Can’t do it.”

“Kal—”

“You think I don’t respect the place Mom let me and Rami out her damn ass? It’s my home country, Charlie.”

“China?”

“Yeah. China. Right.”

“Okay, Kal. Sorry, Kal. Let’s just . . . not . . .”

“Yes, Charlie. Yes. You’re going to detach the junkship from this satellite, and you’re going to back off a quarter kilometer. This thing is going up.”

“What are you talking about? Kal, I can’t just—”

“Trust me, big guy. Just this once. Is that too hard, or do I have to kill myself first? You tell me.”

“I—”

“I’m doing what I’m doing. Goodbye, Charlie.”

“But the money—

Now you’re worried about the money?”

“The contract.”

“Huh. The contract. You know what, Charlie? Fuck the contract.” She laughs, takes the last bite from her Twix bar, and switches off her receiver, this time for good.

• • • •

The Space Preservation Treaty was revived in 2029, over twenty years after its US equivalent failed to pass the floor of the US House of Representatives. The 2029 Treaty followed the first extraplanetary war—a battle between the United States and China, a new species of proxy war not in which one nation funds the insurgents of another, but one in which corporations and private enterprises fund nations to do their bidding. After the end of government shuttle programs and the beginning of corporate rentals of aerospace vehicles and stations, outer space had shifted from a government to corporate frontier.

The war was so damaging in terms of lives, economic resources, and the post-war price of the ensuing space debris that suddenly the world wanted an end to the gathering domino effect of the Kessler Syndrome.

Under the new international Treaty of 2029, Zombies were booted to high orbit—the graveyard orbits—to be left out of the way, at least for the time being.

• • • •

Fifty-three minutes.

Overhead, the Chinese vessel crashes through the medium orbit debris like an icebreaker through Arctic water. The vessel is huge, the size of a small space station, and its dark blue surface flickers through the sun’s emerging light.

The transmissions are still raining in from the Chinese barge. “Junkship 0577. Junkship 0577. Last chance. Last chance. Cease activities at once. Cease activities at once—”

Charlie shuts the receiver. He’s cut off completely now—from Kalima, from the Chinese, from anyone. He has only himself to listen to. Himself and the thundering mechanical workings of his junkship.

“I’m gonna die,” Charlie says. “I’m gonna die . . .”

• • • •

The Lorentz tether glows orange, electrified, by Kalima’s side. The satellite shivers.

She has to do it herself, she realizes.

By the time the Chinese arrive, it will be too late to pull the satellite from its downward spiral toward Earth. Retracting the tether will do nothing to undo the damage that has been done. The satellite’s already set on a gravitational path to atmospheric burn. If Charlie tries to pull the satellite up with the junkship, it will be a dangerous move—risking both their lives and possibly failing to yank the satellite to safety in the first place.

She needs to do it herself.

With no significant, independent power source at hand, Kalima unplugs the safety tether from her EMU and lets her suit run on battery. As she holds tight to the satellite with her left hand and pulls the safety tether forward with her right, she can feel the tension give as her safety tether spills out of the junkship, which is blocked from her vision by the white bulk of the Chinese satellite.

She grits her teeth, shoves open a panel in the Lorentz tether’s maintenance unit, fixes an adapter, and jams the power output of her safety tether into the access jack.

Conventional current rushes from her safety tether, to the satellite’s power supply, to the Lorentz tether. She reverses the voltage, tugging electrons up the tether system.

With the potential difference set the other way, the system inverts.

The magnetic forces reverse in Earth’s magnetic field, the tether’s current no longer dependent on the atmospheric ions but on the current forced by the EMF of Kalima’s jury-rigged safety tether. The Lorentz forces point in the opposite direction, accelerating the satellite upward.

Suddenly, the entire machine begins to swivel around a gut-churning rotation.

“Hell no.” Kalima holds back the urge to spit onto the inside of her visor.

The EMF her safety tether has supplied is too large and the impulse time between deceleration to acceleration too short. Instead of simply accelerating the satellite to a higher orbit, the reversed forces are strong and quick enough they’ve fixed the machine into a 180-degree rotation.

“Shit shit shit.”

Kalima bites her tongue, holds on, and waits for the satellite to gather its angular momentum. If she retracts the tether at the precise angle along its spin, she might still get it to a stable orbit.

All she needs to do is wait.

She can feel the last minutes of life upon her, whirling untethered through the dark of vacuum. Her energy fills the emptiness of outer space thinly, the way space trash scatters across its chaotic orbits.

It’s strange how easily the tether has dragged, how volatile. Too fast, too sharp an angle, to burn slowly in the atmosphere. How many Zombies hit the ground? How many skip off the atmosphere like a stone on water? How effective are the tethers, really?

• • • •

Failure to enforce the Space Preservation Treaty of 2029 resulted in the global resurgence of space weapons proliferation until the UN Security Council launched its Kessler Initiatives in 2034. As in 2029, the Initiatives also followed an escalation of extraplanetary warfare—this time a full-scale, multi-lateral world war over orbital territory, each corporation funding its own country to protect its preferred region of outer space.

The Initiatives concluded that satellites in the graveyard orbits could eventually fall Earthward and, regardless, become a collective threat to spaceflight. The financial consequences bore a price no one was willing to pay. So the Security Council decided satellites needed to be burned in the atmosphere, not left in high orbit where they could eventually pose further risk in the years to come.

• • • •

Sweat floats before Charlie’s face like frozen spittle. He shakes his head, and more sweat dashes off him like water from a dog. The droplets wobble back with his distorted, tiny reflection.

“Damn you, Kal,” he says to the empty channel. “Damn you.”

He unhooks the arms from the satellite’s docking mechanisms, and they retract into the junkship. Only Kalima’s long, gray safety tether links the junkship to the bottom of the satellite, curving around the satellite’s hull to where Kalima hangs on, doing whatever it is she’s doing.

“I’m trusting you, Kal. See? I’m trusting you.”

Charlie’s fingers grip the controls. He steadies the junkship alongside the satellite. His eyes dart from the controls to the satellite to the Chinese vessel driving through the debris above, its dark tip pushing aside the swarming bits like a snowplow.

Suddenly the satellite below begins to turn, cartwheeling through vacuum.

• • • •

Kalima clutches the satellite’s rungs. The Chinese barge is here, looming dark blue above, casting the junkship and the satellite in shadow, blocking out what fraction of the sun has edged over the gray horizon.

The satellite hits ninety degrees. It begins to decelerate.

She’s going to vomit.

The barge’s docking mechanisms have just locked to the junkship, which cowers beneath the conical behemoth like cat and mouse.

Kalima grips the rungs with all her strength as the hunk of Chinese military metal twists 180 degrees like a misshapen giant football.

“You’re crazy,” she tells herself. “You’re crazy, and you know it. Outta your damn mind, Kal.”

The Chinese satellite pulls her along in its broad, powerful arc. Her left hand breaks away. Her right slips against the satellite’s escalating rotational inertia.

“Here’s to you,” she says to the barge. “Commie bastards, I love you dearly. I’m saving your asses after all.” She looks down. “Saving mine—theirs, actually. Down there.”

South Asia blooms brown and green below, barely visible beneath the grayish smog of industrial runoff, which clings to the clouds like space trash to Earth orbit.

• • • •

Several years of international disputes led to the establishment of a small but sizeable fleet of junkships. Kradys, Inc., which emerged as the most profitable corporation following its success in the World War III proxy wars, was a manufacturer of Lorentz tethers, and so it was the tether—more than the laser, nanosweaper, or any other method—which was given the greatest precedence in the Kessler Initiatives.

Every satellite from 2039 onward was required by international mandate to be fitted with a tether. Even if it could afford the price, no country would approve laser or missile technology to nudge down the satellites; those were dangerous, unpredictable methods, the corporates told them.

By the year 2040, competitors and nations once kingdoms worthy for Kradys to wage war against had diminished to the modern equivalent of weak rebel alliances fighting the ubiquitous throne of a global empire.

Under the authority of world peace, the concepts of nationality, heritage, boundary, and place had begun to dissolve.

• • • •

They’re boarding the junkship. They’re through the airlock. Charlie can hear it hiss opened and closed, the clambering, the snap-and-quick Mandarin, a different smell in the air. A salty taste in his mouth.

“I’m gonna die . . .”

Beneath, Charlie can see Kalima hanging on by one hand. She reaches forward, fighting centripetal force, and punches the Lorentz tether’s rewind mechanism as the satellite reaches 100 degrees. Newton’s Third law holds strong, too strong, so that the force she exerts is the force the satellite exerts back on her. Equal and opposite forces rock Kalima from her handhold.

She floats untethered in outer space, hurling away along the tangential velocity of the satellite’s arc.

Her transmission blinks on the dashboard.

“Hey. Charlie. I realized something.”

He closes his eyes.

“Ever seen a Zombie burn all the way?”

“No.” He doesn’t know what to say.

“Ever seen the stats for the ones that don’t?”

Charlie opens his eyes, realizing what she’s getting at, but still can’t say more than a word: “No.”

“The tethers never worked. How could we have thought they did? They crash to Earth or deflect into deep space. It’s shit for engineering. Whole thing’s for show. And espionage.”

Charlie’s staring at the dashboard.

She grunts. “Hey. Big guy—”

But the Chinese military men are in the cockpit, tearing the gear from Charlie’s ears. He’s crying.

“With us,” the first official says, grabbing Charlie’s arm and unstrapping him from his seat. They’re wearing dark red skinsuits. Charlie flails like he’s never done before, thrashing in a seizure of boundless fury and imprisoned guilt. He’s not strong enough to do anything but rasp like a wounded deer stumbling, bloody, between the trees.

He sees the headset still blinking green in the second official’s gloved hand, rips an arm from the first man’s grip, and hits the com so it opens to the barge.

“Save her!” he screams at the headset.

They’ve got both his arms again.

“You can save her!”

They’re yanking him away.

He stares out the window. In the periphery of the frame, the barge poises at the edge of motion over Kalima’s lonely figure like an anthropomorphic cloud drifting near the inanimate pinpoint of a bird in the sky. Is the barge headed her way? Will it turn a blind eye?

Below, beside Kalima, the satellite’s tether retracts like a long, inward bound tongue. As it does so, the very tip—glowing with heat—grazes the junkship as it completes its 180 degrees.

There’s enough momentum to make Charlie’s vessel roll.

A loud creaking erupts from above the junkship as the Chinese docking mechanisms overhead break at their joints, Kalima’s jury-rigged safety tether snaps, and the junkship tears free of the barge, spinning toward Earth.

The Chinese officials hurl into the wall. Charlie squeezes the arms of his chair, buckles back in, and closes his eyes as the ship corkscrews down. It jolts as it collides with the atmosphere. He opens his eyes.

The windows flood with the red of atmospheric entry.

• • • •

Kalima clings to vacuum like the fetus of some cosmic womb. She bathes in the dark amniotic fluid of outer space.

The Chinese satellite climbs to a stable orbit, slowly rotating. The junkship drops through the atmosphere.

She smiles. Her eyes wander to the debris overhead. The debris looks back with its bright shadows of light.

“Lookit all that,” she whispers. “We like to shit ourselves, don’t we, Mr. Kessler? Yeah, Kal. Yeah, we do. We shit ourselves all the time, everyday. Whole loada fun, dontcha think?” She laughs. “Dontcha think, Mr. Kessler?”

Kalima lost her grip on the satellite at just the wrong angle so that now she’s a long while going before she runs into the medium orbit debris above or gets dragged into atmospheric burn. Her jetpack’s thrusters won’t get her anywhere safe. She’ll probably suffocate before anything physically tears or burns her body to shreds.

She laughs again.

She tastes blood in her mouth, and it smells like chocolate inside the EMU despite the fact that she’s already eaten through her Twix bar. She bends her neck forward to sip Dr. Pepper from its tube, but there’s nothing left.

The Chinese barge hovers in the near distance like a pointy balloon at a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Maybe, she wonders, they’ll offer a hand.

• • • •

On June 6, 2050, China—the most powerful nation remaining—launched an electromagnet the size of a skyscraper from the dark side of the moon into outer space. It was an act of rebellion against Kradys and an act of responsibility on behalf of a species which had mummified its terrestrial planet in swathes of its own waste.

For decades many had proposed something of this nature—the construction of a magnet so powerful it could patrol over Earth and sweep debris, most of which was magnetic, into its bulk. An orbiting vacuum cleaner, so to speak.

As soon as their magnetic harvester entered high orbit, the Chinese switched on its electromagnet. It began to sweep the skies, accumulating trash along its thick exterior. For the space of thirty hours, the project worked flawlessly. The harvester managed to pick up a full sixth of the orbital debris.

In terror of what new plan, what new thing, the Chinese had discharged into orbit, the world engaged in a full-fledged attack on the harvester. Kradys launched its defense systems. Weakened corporations and nations launched every remaining kinetic kill vehicle. After all, the harvester wasn’t just picking up debris—it was destroying ships, stations, functioning satellites.

The world could not trust the Chinese. It could not trust anyone, ever.

So there was war.

When the hundreds upon hundreds of kinetic kill vehicles hit the Chinese harvester, the vehicles and the harvester exploded into an uncountable quantity of debris. From Earth, it was like watching a black star go supernova. The official statistic was two billion trackable pieces, but people knew it was more. Hardly anything in orbit at that time—machine or human—survived, and for ten years no one but the Chinese and their notorious barges could travel to and from Earth.

War, distrust, and enmity had warped outer space into an impassable frontier.

• • • •

Charlie wakes up in the Arabian Sea, surrounded by cold, dirty water that laps the windows. Parachutes are heaped over the waves in folds of brown. He turns around, turns away. The two Chinese officials are sprawled on the ground. Blood covers the walls and floor.

“Shit,” Charlie says. He spits out a tooth.

Beyond these polluted waters, a speedboat jets forward. As it makes headway through the choppy waves, Charlie reads the bold, navy blue insignia:

KRADYS, INC.

The junkship rocks in the ocean’s violent cradle, as if Mother Nature wants to rid herself of Charlie and the speedboat and the blood on the walls. The sky, as always, is an impenetrable gray.

“Kal . . .” he murmurs. He opens and closes his mouth like a fish, trying to say more, but there’s nothing more to say.

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Haris A. Durrani

Haris Durrani by Anna Espinola at The Columbia Spectator

Haris A. Durrani is an M.Phil. candidate in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. He holds a B.S. in Applied Physics from Columbia University, where he minored in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and cofounded the Muslim Protagonist Symposium. His acclaimed debut, Technologies of the Self, won the Driftless Novella Contest from Brain Mill Press. He is winner of the McSweeney’s Student Short Story Contest. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Comparative Islamic StudiesBuffalo AlmanackAnalog Science Fiction and FactThe New York Review of Science FictionMedia Diversified, and altMuslimah. He is an alum of the Alpha Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Workshop for Young Writers and was a 2011 Portfolio Gold Medalist in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, for which he currently serves on the Alumni Council. He will attend Columbia Law School in fall 2016.